The Onion is one of the leading and best-known American satirical sites, specializing in presenting fake news in a humorous way as if they were true. These days he presented a legal document to the Supreme Court in support of the freedom of satire. The issue is serious, there is talk of a request for revision of a real process, but the style is typical of the satirical site, which in presenting itself to the court defines itself as “the single most powerful and influential organization in human history”.
The document calls for the intervention of the Supreme Court in the case involving Antony Novak and the police department of Parma, a city of Ohio.
In 2016 Novak was arrested for creating a Facebook page that mocked the local police, he was later acquitted and decided to sue the officers for violating his constitutional rights. A federal court, however, rejected the request, decreeing that the policemen enjoyed in this case the qualified immunitya legal device that gives immunity from civil cases to all public officials (not just policemen) as long as their conduct is considered “in good faith” and does not violate “clearly defined legal or constitutional rights”.
Novak’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and the document of The Onion, in legal terms defined a amicus curiae brief, is an official invitation to the Court itself to consider the case. Although the site alternates legal arguments with the usual use of satirical and nonsense interventions, the issues at stake are serious and important: not only the limits of the right to satire, but also the qualified immunity of public officials, whose reform or abolition has been advocated by many in recent years with regard to cases of abuse by the police.
Novak’s case is particular. In 2016 Novak created a fake Facebook page of the Parma police department, which remained online for only 12 hours, in which he made fun of the office with various posts, announcing the opening of job positions “to which representatives of minorities are warmly invited not to apply “, or a” pedophilia reform “event in which” sex offenders who show up at the station and solve some quizzes and puzzles will be deleted from the criminal records and appointed honorary policemen “.
Other posts prohibited “providing food or help to the homeless in order to induce them to leave Parma due to hunger”, and announced the “discovery of a new abortion technique by the police, to be practiced in a parking lot”. The page did not have a clear disclaimer regarding its satirical nature and featured the police department’s logo and wording (albeit modified). Novak was accused, and later acquitted, of “interruption of public office”.
The Onion, which was born as a university satirical newspaper in 1988 and which has existed only online since 2005 with a model that in Italy has been replicated for example by Lercio, operates mostly in a similar way: news that are parodies of the real ones, presented as it would a news site. In the past satirical posts by The Onion were taken as true and re-launched by the press of the countries involved: for example when the site wrote that the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had received more support than Barack Obama in a survey carried out in the rural areas of the United States, or that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong- a had been voted sexiest man in the world.
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The document presented by The Onion refers to the decision of the Court of Appeal of the Sixth Circuit which rejected Novak’s requests: it has very unusual expressions for a legal act, but it also raises very relevant issues, including the freedom to criticize and make fun of government bodies.
The site calls federal court judges “total Latin-speaking fools.” He particularly criticizes the passage that supports the need to declare himself as a satirical subject: “The Court’s decision suggests that satire is right only if it blows the balloon in advance by declaring that one’s parody is not real, but certain forms of humor work. only if the actor is able to recite the line with a straight face ». The site then asks whether it is normal for an American citizen to be jailed for making fun of government bodies: “We cannot remain passive in the face of a decision that defuses a rhetorical form that has existed for millennia, which is particularly strong in the political discussion and which, only incidentally, is also the basis of the salaries of the authors of The Onion“.
The document alternates convinced positions and legal arguments with totally parodic parts.
In the section where The Onion must present himself and declare himself a noteworthy subject for the Supreme Court, the site declares “4.3 trillion readers and 350 thousand journalists employed full-time or part-time in his offices and in his work camps distributed in various parts of the world” . He adds that he is a leader in the “trade by ship” sector and that he is “at the top of the nation in the field of deforestation and opencast mining, proudly conducting millions of animal tests every day”.
To prove his legal competence he quotes the alleged Latin motto of the early magazine “Tu stultus es” (“You are stupid”) and one of its historical titles: “The Supreme Court decides that the Supreme Court decides”. The document then emphasizes the abilities of its authors to “make accurate predictions about the future,” citing a satirical article that anticipated the federal investigation into former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
The request to the Supreme Court of The Onion, beyond its satirical content, it can still have real importance. The Court receives over 5,000 appeals each year to review lower-level court rulings (appeals defined as “requests for certiorari“) And accepts a hundred.
As he explained to the CNN Steve Vladeck, professor at the University of Texas School of Law and Supreme Court expert, to increase the chances of being considered it is useful to draw media attention to one’s case: “In this sense, having a supporting document from The Onion which underlines the importance of the subject in a decidedly effective way cannot hurt ».